At least two people dead in Highway 400 multi-vehicle pileup

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COOKSTOWN, Ont. — At least two people have died in a 14-vehicle pileup that sent a wave of flames down a highway north of Toronto, prompting motorists to run for their lives, Ontario Provincial Police said Wednesday.

Police said the number of fatalities may rise as they reach more vehicles involved in the fiery crash on Highway 400 south of Barrie, Ont.

“There are cars everywhere, twisted transport trucks, destroyed vehicles, metal that is unrecognizable as to whether or not it is a vehicle at all or not. And that’s why we’re still looking to determine any other victims that may be inside the vehicles, which we haven’t been able to ascertain at this point,” OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt told reporters at the scene.

Schmidt said there’s going to be a lot of work to pull the victims out of the damaged vehicles.

“It’s absolutely devastating and beyond description,” Schmidt said. “It’s one of the worst crashes I’ve ever seen in terms of absolute carnage and destruction.”

Officials said the fatal accident came on the heels of another more minor multi-vehicle collision on the highway.

Kevin Gallant, fire chief for the neighbouring town of Bradford-West Gwillimbury, said the three-vehicle crash around 10:30 p.m. took place only a few hundred metres further north on Highway 400.

Heavy traffic from that collision likely set the scene for the more major accident, he said.

Gallant was on the scene of the first collision when two fuel tanker trucks and at least three transport trucks collided just before 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, setting off a devastating chain reaction.

“When I looked to the south from the accident I was already on, all I saw was a big ball of fire,” Gallant said.

Schmidt said the crash sent fuel spilling down the highway and described the blaze as “rolling down the highway.”

“People were running for their lives to not be encompassed by the moving fire that was on the highway,” he said.

Firefighters let the fuel burn itself out before tackling any remaining hot spots and are still at the scene, Schmidt said.

Gallant said his was one of eight fire departments on the scene that helped get the fire largely under control within about two hours.

Paul Novosad, a freelance photographer who observed first responders battling the blaze, counted about 26 fire trucks swarming over the scene in what he described as a well-co-ordinated effort.

“The fire was just spectacular. It kept blowing up, the diesel,” he said. “The heat must have been incredible.”

Police said all lanes of the highway are closed between Country Road 88 and Highway 89 and are expected to remain closed all day Wednesday.

The cause of the collision is still under investigation, but Schmidt said the initial investigation indicates that a transport truck may have collided into slowing traffic.

“The sky was clear, it was dark, obviously, at the time … no issues on the road surface for visibility,” Schmidt said, adding police will be looking at possible mechanical issues as well as any possible human factors.

That stretch of the highway has been under construction for months.

As recently as last week, provincial police were highlighting the dangerous nature of accidents involving commercial transport trucks.

The force said it has responded to more than 5,000 such collisions this year, with 67 people killed. In the two previous years, OPP tracked 13,668 crashes involving commercial transport trucks that killed a total of 155 people.

The Ontario Trucking Association said last week that the industry is committed to road safety, noting that there has been a 66 per cent decrease in the fatality rate from large truck collisions between 1995 and 2014 despite a 75 per cent rise in large truck vehicle registrations.

— with files from Paola Loriggio and Michelle McQuigge in Toronto.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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